Many of us will recall being accused, as children, by frustrated and sometimes angry parents of “telling stories”, of making things up, of fibbing, a less shameful thing than lying, but shameful none the less. For the record, I was rarely accused of “telling stories”. When it came to creative writing in school, I turned out not to be very good at it; one of the many things I regret about my skills set.
I regret not being a good storyteller because it is a habit and skill so fundamental to our species and to education. As Yuval Noah Harari the historian, philosopher and author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, and more recently of 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, a master storyteller seeking after truth in non-fiction. He writes of the tree of knowledge and in Chapter 2 of Sapiens of fiction not merely as a way of imagining things, telling stories, but enabling us to do so collectively. The nationalist myths of modern states have ancient precursors in creation myths and the Dreamtime myths of Aboriginal Australians.
Through the stories that we tell ourselves and share with others, we reveal ourselves; these stories are at the heart of our diverse cultures. The stories we tell ourselves, and about our selves, are fundamental to our identity. Harari argues that our shared stories give us Sapiens a unique ability amongst species to cooperate flexibly in large numbers. Storytelling has been used for good and ill throughout history. As he writes “‘We are the only mammals that can cooperate with numerous strangers because only we can invent fictional stories, spread them around, and convince millions of others to believe in them.”
In 21 Lessons for the 21st Century he argues that fake news is older than Twitter and Facebook. Social media and its echo chambers have mobilised support for Donald Trump and facilitated his rise to lead the USA, contributed to the triumph of Brexit and is effectively, and dangerously, spreading the anti-vaxxer message.
“For better or worse, fiction is among the most effective tools in humanity’s toolkit. By bringing people together, religious creeds make large-scale human cooperation possible. They inspire people to build hospitals, schools and bridges in addition to armies and prisons. Adam and Eve never existed, but Chartres Cathedral is still beautiful. Much of the Bible may be fictional, but it can still bring joy to billions and encourage humans to be compassionate, courageous and creative.”
As Soyer and Hogarth warned last month in Harvard Business Review we must be careful “Don’t Let a Good Story Sell You on a Bad Idea”.
At the heart of Responsible Tourism are the values of respect and the aspiration to create meaningful connections. Respect does not require the denial of difference. A meaningful connection is best achieved through the exploration of difference, through conversation, dialogues and debate. What does this have to do with travel and tourism?
In The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain wrote : “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” This may or may not have been an entirely original thought, “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page” is attributed to St Augustine.
The idea that travel broadens the mind is widely assumed, it deserves to be questioned. Does it?
I think it is largely a matter of how one travels, engaging in conversation with the other or not, travelling with an open mind or not.
Mejdi Tours is “founded on the belief that tourism should be a vehicle for a more positive and interconnected world.” MEJDI translates to both “honour” and “respect”, the business was established to “change the face of tourism through a socially responsible business model that honors both clients and communities.” Travellers engage with a diversity of views about the places they visit, multiple narratives.
Mejdi have pioneered dual narrative tours to, amongst other places, Israel and Palestine and Northern Ireland. Their two-guide model equips groups with two local guides, each representing unique cultural, religious, political, and ethnic narratives.
We need to take responsibility for the stories our itineraries and guides tell – lest we too risk selling “fake news”.